Month: August 2003

Diamonds are forever

This month’s Wired Magazine cover story, “The New Diamond Age” is quite a read, merging Wired’s standard breathless technology-is-changing-everything fare with James Bond-style meetings and secret labs complete with Russian scientists. At the root of the story are two labs that make synthetic diamonds. These aren’t simulated gemstones like Cubic Zirconia (CZ) but real diamond gemstones that have been created in the laboratory rather than mined from the Earth. Gemesis, based in Florida, uses high pressure and temperature chambers that mimic how diamonds are created in the Earth. Apollo Diamond, based near Boston, uses chemical vapor deposition to grow diamonds. These labs, Wired hints, might just bankrupt the diamond industry.

To those within the jewelry industry, however, synthetic diamonds are business-as-usual. Gemesis and now synthetic gemstone-maker Chatham have been producing synthetic diamonds for several years, and the process was even the subject of a Nova back in 2000. Apollo’s technique has produced some recent advances, but to hear Jeweler’s Circular Keystone report it this is all just steady technological progress. It would seem the only important point to jewelers is whether gemologists can scientifically distinguish synthetics from natural gemstones, not whether the synthetics are “as good as” diamonds in any other way. And according to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), it is fairly straightforward to identify even the new Apollo diamonds. They also note that Apollo is working with the GIA “to ensure that these CVD laboratory-grown diamonds are correctly identified before being introduced into the market.”

The key is that the price of diamonds, and gemstones in general, are governed by the laws of fashion rather than some objective standard. Certainly diamonds are pretty, but then so is Cubic Zirconia. There are two things that keep diamonds in high demand over substitutes like CZ. First, the De Beers cartel goes to great lengths to remind us that the only way for a man to prove his love to a woman is by giving her diamonds, and you can bet that De Beers won’t let synthetics in on that little bit of spin. As Jef Van Royen, a senior scientist at the Diamond High Council put it to Wired: “If people really love each other, then they give each other the real stone. It is not a symbol of eternal love if it is something that was created last week.” The second reason reaches the heart of fashion: diamonds and natural gemstones are expensive. This is why people will still buy natural emeralds, even though they are some 300 times more expensive than synthetic emeralds. Or more accurately, they buy natural emeralds because they are 300 times more expensive than synthetics. Like luxury cars and designer-brand clothing, the point is not the product itself so much as the ability to say “I can afford this and you can’t.” As long as people can still say “happy birthday, Honey — it’s a natural diamond” I don’t see synthetics destroying the diamond market anytime soon.

References

BBC Creative Archive

Greg Dyke, director general of the BBC, has a vision. In a speech he gave this Sunday at the Edinburgh International TV Festival he described his plans for how to leverage the huge BBC media library — give it away.

Looking ahead, let me give you one example of the kind of thing the BBC will be able to do in the future.

The BBC probably has the best television library in the world.

For many years we have had an obligation to make our archive available to the public, it was even in the terms of the last charter.

But what have we done about it?

Well, you all know the problem.

Up until now, this huge resource has remained locked up, inaccessible to the public because there hasn’t been an effective mechanism for distribution.

But the digital revolution and broadband are changing all that.

For the first time, there is an easy and affordable way of making this treasure trove of BBC content available to all.

Let me explain with an easy example.

Just imagine your child comes home from school with homework to make a presentation to the class on lions, or dinosaurs, or Argentina or on the industrial revolution.

He or she goes to the nearest broadband connection – in the library, the school or even at home – and logs onto the BBC library.

They search for real moving pictures which would turn their project into an exciting multi-media presentation.

They download them and, hey presto, they are able to use the BBC material in their presentation for free.

Now that is a dream which we will soon be able to turn into reality.

We intend to allow parts of our programmes, where we own the rights, to be available to anyone in the UK to download so long as they don’t use them for commercial purposes.

Under a simple licensing system, we will allow users to adapt BBC content for their own use.

We are calling this the BBC Creative Archive.

When complete, the BBC will have taken a massive step forward in opening our content to all – be they young or old, rich or poor.

But then it’s not really our content – the people of Britain have paid for it and our role should be to help them use it.

The vision and even the project name sounds like a cross between the Creative Commons project, chaired by Lawrence Lessig, and the Internet Archive founded by Brewster Kahle. No surprise then that Slate reports the BBC talked to both Lessig and Kahle before making their plans. In a blog comment, Kahle also acknowledged the visit: “Yes, the BBC crew was brought to the Archive by Larry Lessig and we showed how inexpensive it can be and how we have dealt with the ego’s and restrictions issues that always come up. I dont know what role we played, but their decision is fantastic and hopefully trendsetting… thank you bbc.”

There are a lot of details that haven’t been announced yet. For example, it’s not clear how much of the BBC library the BBC owns free and clear, or at least freely enough that they can redistribute under a new kind of license. Then there’s the inevitable argument from commercial interests that the BBC shouldn’t be allowed to compete with their own online distribution. This kind of argument will probably hold less sway in the U.K. than it would here in the U.S., however, as the British are already comfortable with the idea of a strong government-sponsored media.

There are lots of reasons this is a great move on the part of the BBC. First and most important, the Internet has brought down distribution costs to the point that, as far as gifts to humanity go, this has a lot of bang for the buck. Second, BBC shows are paid for by fees charged to UK television owners, so there’s a good argument that the library is already owned by the British TV-watching public. These are reason enough, but I like to think there’s even an argument that it is in the BBC’s self-interest to share with free-loading yanks like myself. As Dyke says in his speech, Britain’s television reflects its culture, tastes and values. That kind of export can have far-reaching secondary benefits for a nation, from increased tourism to more desire for British goods. Just think of what a great marketing tool Hollywood has been for Levis Jeans. By making BBC News, BBC documentaries or even Absolutely Fabulous easily available to the world at large the British culture may find real economic returns. As The Guardian put it, “if the BBC doesn’t get its media out to as many people as possible, it’s failing its charter requirements.”

Sidenote: It took me a few days to blog about this, and yet it still hasn’t hit the U.S. press. Aside from the Slate article, Google News is turning up almost no coverage outside of the UK press and the blogs. I try to stay away from conspiracy theories (really, I do) but I can’t help but wonder if the silence has anything to do with the battle being raged between the BBC and Rupert Murdoch, or the fact that Murdoch’s media empire stands to lose the most if things like this start to catch on? Why is this a non-story on this side of the pond?

[UPDATE 9/11/2003: Lawrence Lessig has an article in the Financial Times about the BBC Creative Archive.]

References

California Supreme Court Rules in DeCSS-posting Case

The California Supreme Court ruled today that trade secret laws can trump first amendment protections, overturning a previous Court of Appeals ruling. The case involves an injunction against Andrew Bunner, a San Francisco man who posted the DeCSS DVD encryption-crack code on his Web site. The injunction, which required Bunner to remove the code, was thrown out by the Court of Appeals on First Amendment grounds. The decision is quite narrow, essentially saying “the First Amendment does not categorically prohibit preliminary injunctions to enjoin the publication of trade secrets” and sends the case back to the Court of Appeals to re-examine the facts of the case.

I’ve read the decision, but rather than subject you to my legal ignorance I’ll defer to people in the know. First, Eugene Volokh blogs some legal concerns about the decision, saying that the court failed to explain how it determines that some speech is a matter of “private concern” (which gets less protection than something of public concern) and why it’s proper for the court to make this decision. He also questions their application of case law, especially as it relates to whether there were alternative channels to express the same speech (Justice Moreno makes a similar point in his concurring opinion).

As to how the case will wind up, Dan Gillmor posts this little gem at his blog:

I’ve had a note from a lawyer involved in the case, Tom Moore of Tomlinson Zisko in Palo Alto. He makes some interesting points. Here’s what he says:

I’m one of Andrew Bunner’s lawyers. While today’s Mercury News Internet article is true as far as it goes, it misses the fun part entirely.

The decision is a triumph of politics over logic. When you read the decision, you can follow the logic: (1) Software implicates the First Amendment; (2) trade secrets law implicates the First Amendment; (3) the proper level of scrutiny is intermediate First Amendment scrutiny; and (4) assuming that everything in the trial court’s order is supported factually, the order survives that level of scrutiny. Then you see where politics comes into play: The next logical step should have been for the Cal. Supreme Court to review the record independently. Instead, the Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to review the record to see if the facts were there. It’s not as if the Court could not review the record. Justice Moreno did it and concluded: “the DVD Copy Control Association’s… trade secret claim against Bunner is patently without merit.”

So, the Court did the politically safe thing by dodging the actual facts.

Those of us who work on Mr. Bunner’s behalf are more entertained than disappointed. The Court has given us a lot to work with. Indeed, the more significant decision in this case was the Cal. Supreme Court’s earlier decision, Pavlovich v. Superior Court. In that decision, the Court held that the injunction does not extend into Texas. That means that CSS and DeCSS is a secret in California only. Eventually, the public nature of DeCSS will come to the fore.

The precedents set in this case may be important, but as far as DeCSS is concerned this is all shutting the barn door after the horses have already bolted, caught a steamer and are enjoying their vacation in Tahiti. And I have the t-shirt to prove it.

References

Independent and willing allies

I haven’t blogged about the SCO vs. IBM case since it’s been so widely discussed elsewhere. The ever-so-brief summary is that SCO sued IBM, claiming that they own IP rights to some code IBM gave to Linux. The open source community rallied. IBM countersued. Red Hat Software sued. Novell indicated that their records show SCO doesn’t own many of the IP rights they think they do. And Eric Raymond, President of the Open Source Initiative, wrote a rather scathing position paper describing how incredibly bogus SCO’s claims are.

Now SCO’s CEO is charging that IBM is secretly stage managing all these attacks. Eric Raymond has responded with an open letter, calling the charge a “brain-boggling disconnect between SCO and reality.” The letter is a fun read, but the key part that struck me was here:

Yes, one of the parties I talk with is, in fact, IBM. And you know what? They’re smarter than you. One of the many things they understand that you do not is that in the kind of confrontation SCO and IBM are having, independent but willing allies are far better value than lackeys and sock puppets. Allies, you see, have initiative and flexibility. The time it takes a lackey to check with HQ for orders is time an ally can spend thinking up ways to make your life complicated that HQ would be too nervous to use. Go on, try to imagine an IBM lawyer approving this letter.

The very best kind of ally is one who comes to one’s side for powerful reasons of his or her own. For principle. For his or her friends and people. For the future. IBM has a lot of allies of that kind now. It’s an alliance you drove together with your arrogance, your overreaching, your insults, and your threats.

That’s a nice description of the loose-knit “smart mob” organizations that are a rising force in this century. Be they open source developers, Howard Dean supporters or “terrorists linked to Al Qaeda,” these communities continue to surprise traditional top-down organizations with their ability to be robust, to adapt, and most surprisingly to be efficient and productive without a strong chain of command.

References

No seat at the WIPO table for open source

Back in July, a group of 68 economists, scientists, industry representatives, academics, open-source advocates, consumer advocates and librarians proposed that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) host a meeting on the use of open collaborative development models. Examples described in the proposal include IETF standards, open-source software such as Apache and Apple’s Darwin OS, the Human Genome Project and open academic journals, among others. The WIPO’s initial response was quite favorable. Dr. Francis Gurry, WIPO Assistant Director and Legal Counsel, was quoted by Nature Magazine as saying “The use of open and collaborative development models for research and innovation is a very important and interesting development… The director-general looks forward with enthusiasm to taking up the invitation to organize a conference to explore the scope and application of these models.”

Needless to say, business interests like Microsoft saw such high-profile acceptance of open source as a threat, and immediately lobbied to have the idea squashed. The Washington Post and National Journal’s Technology Daily report that Lois Boland, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Acting Director of International Relations, dismissed the meeting as out of the WIPO’s area, saying the organization is “clearly limited to the protection of intellectual property.” “To have a meeting whose primary objective is to waive or remove those protections seems to go against the mission,” Boland told National Journal. She argued specifically against the discussion of open-source models, claiming that open-source software is not protected under copyright law but only contract law, which is not in the domain of WIPO. She also protested the manner in which the meeting was organized, saying WIPO’s agenda should be driven by member nations and the idea came from outside the organization. Under increasing pressure, WIPO canceled the meeting, saying the polarized political debate made the possibility of international policy discussion “increasingly remote.”

Lawrence Lessig’s blog blasts Boland, saying “If Lois Boland said this, then she should be asked to resign. The level of ignorance built into that statement is astonishing, and the idea that a government official of her level would be so ignorant is an embarrassment.” Personally I think Lessig is missing the broader picture here, or perhaps he is just not cynical enough. Rather than ignorance, Boland is simply showing unusual candor in her statements. Her position is that WIPO should promote international IP laws that support the current content industry, regardless of how that affects new upstart industries, national productivity, the economy or other important concerns. In the words of The Economist, she is being pro-business, but not pro-market. I agree with Lessig that this is abhorrent, but given how the U.S. continues to force brand-new IP protections down the world’s collective throat it seems to be a fair description of current U.S. policy.

The issues described in the proposal to the WIPO are not going to go away, and will eventually need to be addressed with or without the involvement of WIPO. As Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said on hearing the meeting was canceled: “Does this indicate that WIPO is abdicating authority and responsibility for these issues, including open source for the future? If so, we will all live by that, but then so must they. They should step up the plate or step aside. … It is inexplicable that they would shut the door on what are clearly important issues.”

References

Face Recognition gets the boot in Tampa

Tampa Police have decided to scrap their much-criticized face-recognition system, admitting that during a two-year trial the system did not correctly identify a single suspect. Similar face-recognition systems are still in use in Pinellas County, Florida, and Virginia Beach, Virginia, though neither of these systems have ever resulted in an arrest either.

Face-recognition technology evokes images of automatic cameras scanning bustling crowds, automatically picking out terrorists from the millions of faces that pass by. One day the technology may be able to deliver on this, but currently it is still necessary for a human controller to zoom in on individual faces using a joystick. A 2001 St. Petersburg Times article describes a Tampa police officer scanning the weekend crowd in Ybor City, checking 457 faces out of the some 125,000 tourists and revelers in an evening.

Let’s do some quick math. The police are only scanning 457 out of 125,000 people on a given night, or 0.3%. That means even if ten known bad guys from the watch-list are in the crowd, there’s still only a 4% chance any one of them will be looked at by the system. That number drops to 0.4% if there’s only one bad guy in the crowd that night.

Then there’s the chance that the face recognition system doesn’t sound an alarm. A recently published evaluation of the Identix system used in Tampa gives a base hit rate of 77% (that is, 77% of people on a watch-list were correctly identified). However, that was with a watch-list of only 25 faces. The hit rate goes down as watch-list size goes up, down to 56% with a watch-list of 3000 faces. According to the Associated Press, the Tampa database had over 24,000 mug shots on its watch-list. Then there’s the problem that mug shots were taken indoors and the surveillance cameras were outdoors. According to the evaluation, mixing indoors and outdoors can reduce hit rates by around 40%. (The 40% reduction was seen on identity verification tasks; the watch-list task is actually more difficult.) Finally, these results all assume a 1% false-positive rate, which would result in five false alarms per night. Given all these (well-known) problems, it’s amazing anyone ever thought this was a good idea.

There’re several reasons I hope this failure dissuades similar attempts by other law-enforcement communities. First, as a 2001 ACLU report on the Tampa system points out, our resources could be better spent, and face recognition can give us a false sense of security. Second, a face-recognition systems in a public space gives the impression that everyone is a suspect, regardless of whether the system actually works. And finally, face recognition technology continues to improve. It won’t happen in the next few years, but at some point the technology is going to reach the point where recognition is completely automated, high accuracy, and robust. When that happens, it will be possible to track large numbers of people as they go about their daily lives, and even track people retroactively from recorded video. Hopefully by this time our society will be so inoculated against such privacy violations that such uses will be inconceivable.

References

Flash Voids

Science fiction author Larry Niven once described a world where people would instantly teleport to places where something interesting was happening, causing what he called “Flash Crowds.” Now the LA Times reports that movie makers are seeing the opposite problem: instant communication means that if the audience doesn’t like your movie on opening-night Friday, by Saturday you’ll have yourself a flash void:

“Today, there is just no hope of recovering your marketing costs if the film doesn’t connect with the audience, because the reaction is so quick — you are dead immediately,” said Bob Berney, head of Newmarket Films, which distributed “Whale Rider,” a well-received, low-budget New Zealand picture that grossed $12.8 million and has endured through the summer. “Conversely, if the film is there, then the business is there.”

Two things are going on here. The first is just that word-of-mouth is getting faster, which we already knew. That means that the old strategy of hyping a bad movie so everyone sees it before the reviews come out won’t work much longer. The more important point, though, is that movie companies are seeing their carefully crafted ad campaigns overwhelmed by the buzz created by everyone’s texting, emailing and blogging. The shift in power cuts both ways: audience-pleasers like Bend It Like Beckham thrive on almost buzz alone, while The Hulk was killed by buzz based partially on pirated pre-release copies, in spite of a huge marketing campaign.

Studios (and producers in general) will learn one of two lessons from this trend. Either they’ll decide they need to manipulate buzz by wooing mavens and carefully controlling how information is released, or, just possibly, they’ll follow the advice of Oren Aviv, Disney’s marketing chief: “Make a good movie and you win. Make a crappy movie and you lose.”

References

The ESP Game

What do ESP and Artificial Intelligence have in common? The ESP Game, a new game (and AI research project) recently discussed at IJCAI by CMU researcher Luis von Ahn.

Many AI researchers believe that the biggest barrier to creating human-like intelligence is that humans know millions of simple everyday facts. This ordinary knowledge ranges from knowing what a horse looks like to a simple fact like “people buy food in restaurants.” In the past, AI researchers would spend years painstakingly entering such information into huge databases, but now a new crop of researchers are leveraging the millions of Netizens who have nothing better to do than answer stupid questions all day to build these databases quickly and for free. One such site is the OpenMind Initiative (hosted by my own Ricoh Innovations), which is primarily being used by the MIT Media Lab to collect Common Sense Knowledge.

The latest foray into this space is the ESP Game. When you log into the game you are paired randomly with another player on the Net. Both you and your partner are shown the same 15 random images from the Web, one at a time. Your job is to type in as many words to describe the image as possible, with the goal of matching a word your partner has entered. When you agree on a word, you both get points and move on to the next image. Usually I don’t care for Web-based games, but I have to admit the game is compelling.

The real goal of the system is to generate a huge database of human-quality keywords for all the images on the Net. The task is huge: Google’s Image Search has already indexed over 425 Million images by using the text that surrounds the image’s hyperlink. But numbers are on Ahn’s side: if only 5000 people were to play the game throughout the day, all 425 Million images would receive at least one label in a single month. Given that many game sites get over 10,000 players in a day, a few months is probably all Ahn needs to fill out the whole database.

Micropayments finally here?

I’m probably the last on the block to have heard about this, but Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, has finally come out with an online comic available for a micropayment of 25 cents. Or rather, he came out with it over a month ago, but I just found out about it today. As you might expect from Scott, he’s put the new medium (Macromedia Flash in this case) to good use without losing the fundamental comic-book feel. It was a quarter well-spent, especially since I could download the content to my computer and feel like I actually got something I can call “my copy.”

Payments are made through BitPass, a new startup out of Stanford that allows you to open an account with as little as three dollars and a credit card or PayPal account. The whole process was quick and painless, as is the payment process itself. There’s not too much content you can purchase through BitPass yet, but it looks like they’re building up a solid content base as they go through their beta-testing. Content providers seem to still be figuring out how the market will play out for different kinds of media: models range from the donation cups that are already common with PayPal, to purchase-and-download, to a “30 reads in 90 days” pay-per-view kind of model.

And now just in case I wasn’t quite the last person on the Internet to have heard about this, you know too.

And the DMCA be damned…

Here are a few free Mac programs I’ve recently come across that make it easy to exercise your rights to fair use. Which is to say, these are programs that allow you to backup, timeshift, spaceshift, or quote digital media that you have bought and paid for but that the Content Cartel would rather you not be able to manipulate. Windows users will have to find their own equivalents (they’re bound to be out there) or just break down and buy a Mac.

  • DVDbackup: A program that copies a DVD to disk. It can also change or remove region codes, remove the Macrovision Analog Protection System that prevents copying DVD movies to video tapes, and decrypt the Content Scrambling System (CSS) that prevents copying of commercial DVD content to another digital storage media. Simple drag-and-drop interface. Freeware. Note that some uses of this program may be illegal in the U.S. or any other country that has granted legal protection to any business model that can be encoded in digital rights management technology.
  • OpenShiva: Convert a VOB (DVD video) file to MPEG-4 with AAC audio codecs. This will reduce the size of a full-length feature film from about 4.7 Gigabytes to only 1 Gigabyte without substantial loss in quality. Simple interface, and lots of options including cropping and scaling of the final output. Open source (GPL). Note that for commercial DVDs you will need to use something like DVDbackup to decode the CSS encryption first.
  • WireTap 1.0.0: This program goes right to the sound drivers and records any audio playing on your Mac. This includes sound snippets from DVD movies, games, iChatAV conversations, or Internet radio. Free product provided by Ambrosia Software, the people who make the SnapzProX video/screen capture software.